Enriched Education in American Suburbs
Syracuse University Press is pleased to announce the launch of a new series, Writing, Culture, and Community Practices. The series seeks manuscripts that move between disciplinary identity and community practices to address how literacies and writing projects empower a population and promote social change.
We reached out to author, Robert E Brooke about his book Writing Suburban Citizenship which focuses on how American youth is being educated in the suburbs, and then become disconnected from a regional history and culture. We also asked Brooke to elaborate on his views on the Common Core Curriculum and state testing.
SU Press: In what ways have you seen place-based education influence students and teachers in your experience with the NWP?
RB: Teachers routinely tell me that place-based education has “changed their life” as teachers and persons. For instance, an at-risk 8th grade reading teacher in this fall’s Place Conscious Education class has wholly redesigned her reading program from “test prep” to “connect to real work and issues in the community surrounding school” because she’s convinced this place based approach will actually engage her resistant learners. We’ve been doing place based education in Nebraska since 1997, and our on-site school/community partnership programs always enroll, as does the every-other-year place based teaching seminar I’ve offered since 2007 in online format. The classroom units described in this book are selected because of their focus on suburban settings. But the place based principles, for designing school projects that connects with local communities, have proven successful over and over again in rural, urban, and suburban contexts across our state and region.
In the National Writing Project – beyond Nebraska – place based education is a standard part of teacher development, especially in rural areas. Please see the info on place based education in the Rural Sites Network programs of the National Writing Project.
SU Press: What are your thoughts on the Common Core Standards Initiative? Do you feel that there is room for place-based education within the Common Core Standards?
RB: Place Based Education is explicitly an alternative to the Common Core. The Common Core is designed to be a placeless and migratory curriculum. At some level, American schools have to choose between migratory education and locally engaged citizenship, and place based education certainly points out this choice.
Further, our work has shown us that schools and community adults routinely value the outcomes of place conscious projects – when youth connect to local issues in a meaningful way, participating in the wider community debates, designing strong local programs, even leading community discussion on controversial issues, adults stand up and applaud. This is “real” education, connected to actual here-and-now work in the community – rather than “postponed” education that is always waiting for the payoff at some future date, like when the ACT scores finally come in.
But to extend: it is possible to design place based units that “meet and exceed” any of the standards in the Common Core, or in any set of state standards (Nebraska isn’t a Common Core state – but our standards have been independently judge to be more rigorous than Common Core). As we show in the Afterword, most place conscious projects are relatively easily matched with standards, and go beyond simple classroom tests in the complexity of their work with those standards.
SU Press: What made you first interested in this issue?
RB: I’ve got a fine lyrical essay about this in the introduction to my 2003 book Rural Voices. In a nutshell, I took a “get to know the state of Nebraska” trip through the state shortly after I arrived, and was startled to find a robust, literate culture of citizenship thriving in local communities. These fine people were using reading and writing to create the civic bodies they lived in — drafting charters for the Arabian Horse Breeders Association in Sargent, Nebraska; mounting political action around water rights to the Republican River; celebrating heritage in cowboy poetry, like the festival in Valentine; addressing the complicated issues of property taxes versus educational funding in town hall meetings. I returned to the university aware of this wider and more important range of literacy acts in the local populace, that my current teaching (focused only and narrowly on academic success) had no way of reaching. So I began then exploring how local communities and local literacies could revitalize the teaching of writing, if we sought ways to connect writing classrooms to the robust local culture.
SU Press: The standards claim they were “created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live”. Do you think children from the rural and urban communities would have the same learning opportunities if they weren’t taught in the suburbs?
RB: This claim in the standards is one of the “Big Lies” of educational policy reform in the country. The reality is that no test, and no standards, can make up for the systematic inequities between communities in the US. The real issue about school success is poverty, in the community surrounding the school, and not any set of standards. So, frankly, this claim in the Common Core Standards is selling America a false bill of goods. Without addressing real differences in rural, urban, and suburban economic levels, we can’t get equal achievement.
Here in Nebraska, my colleagues in the State Dept of Education can predict, based on economic indicators, which schools will “underachieve” on whatever set of standards are in vogue that year. We don’t need standards to show us these realities. We do need education programs that can help local citizens develop and enact policy changes that will alleviate systematic economic inequity.
SU Press: Being a professor of English at the University of Nebraska and director of the Nebraska Writing Project, how do you feel about the fact that Nebraska is one of the few states that has yet to adopt the Common Core?
RB: I am proud of my state for rejecting the Common Core in favor of local control over education, standards, and community connections. Our state standards have been independently evaluated as more rigorous than the Common Core. I note that Nebraska has consistently been ahead of the curve on the issue of meaningful assessment and local control – and our programs have often been pointed to as real alternatives, when whatever national assessment movement then in vogue spirals into its final stages of ineffectiveness (as they all have to date).
SU Press: Do you think it’s the state or the community’s responsibility to ensure the children are educated on their cultural background?
RB: It is both the state and the community’s responsibility to ensure that children learn their cultural heritage. It is both the state and the community’s responsibility to ensure that children learn how to be active and productive citizens, able to participate in the many debates shaping the local landscapes of any American place. Increasingly across America, and certainly in any sizable civic body, those debates are shaped by contrasting and plural cultural heritages – and young people need to be taught to understand, respect, negotiate, and work collaboratively amongst these heritages to get the civic work of their local community done.
SU Press: Are there any influential people in the field of education or books about this issue that have inspired or stuck with you?
RB: Diane Ravitch’s blog, and her Reign of Error, are really good at debunking the current culture of assessment. I also like Chris Gallagher and Eric Turley’s Our Better Judgement: Teacher Leadership for Writing Assessment.
On place based education and related issues, I’m quite fond of Wendell Berry’s Citizenship Papers and Linda Flower’s Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement.
SU Press: What do hope your readers will learn after reading your book?
1) That education doesn’t have to be migratory – aimed at some future work career elsewhere – but can instead be focused on developing skills for robust local citizenship, right here where you are, and right now;
2) That geography matters – it makes a real difference to your life, as student, teacher, or parent, where your school is located, and how your school connects with local place;
3) That the natural world and the cultural world surrounding your school are exciting resources for real learning and real community action;
4) That, if you’re an educator, other teachers in settings just like yours have successfully designed engaging place based programs – and you can too.